Wednesday, April 9, 2014

GodzillaMania #8: All Monsters Attack/Godzilla vs. Hedorah/Gigan/Megalon

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

All Monsters Attack: 0/F

We’re entering the dog days of Godzilla, folks. Following the success of Destroy All Monsters, Toho reneged on its plan to end the series and made the 10th, and shittiest, film in the series, All Monsters Attack (also known as Godzilla’s Revenge, to my utter bewilderment). It’s not that gearing a Godzilla film specifically towards young children is a bad idea, especially given that the King of the Monsters primarily appealed to kids at this point. The problem is that All Monsters Attack is an almost impossibly lazy cash-grab of a movie, one destined to bore children and adults alike.

Ichiro Miki (Tomonori Yazaki) is alatchkey kid in Tokyo. He doesn’t have many friends his age (only Eisei Amamoto’s eccentric toymaker mentor) and is relentlessly bullied by Sancho (Junichi Ito), nicknamed “Gabara.” Lonely, Ichiro daydreams about visiting Godzilla and his son Minilla on Monster Island. One day, he’s forced to hide from Sancho and his friends in an abandoned factory, where he finds the driver’s license of one of the two bank robbers hiding in the factory. The men follow Ichiro home and kidnap him, and it’s only Ichiro’s imaginary friendship with Minilla, who urges him to face his fears, that can save him now.

It isn’t the most exciting narrative, to put it lightly. Perhaps the material could have made for a halfway decent children’s film about facing fears had that been the full picture, but with Ichiro’s daydreams and the shoehorned in bank robbers plot to contend with the central storyline doesn’t develop beyond a rote bullied-kid storyline. Beyond that: this is a goddamned Godzilla movie. Kids come to these things to see Godzilla fight, not another small kid fritter away his hours daydreaming and dealing with a pair of bumbling thieves who play like a boring version of Harry and Marv from Home Alone, or take his “fight your own battles” lesson to dubious places when the film ends with him purposefully startling a painter so as to get him to drop paint on himself, then running away from it. Ichiro’s train conductor father mentions at one point that it’s hard to understand kids today. Hey, guy, I understand that kids go to monster movies to see monsters.

But what really makes All Monsters Attack an inept and galling exercise is the footage of Ichiro on Monster Island, as around 80% of it is comprised of stock footage from previous Godzilla movies. Ichiro arrives to watch Godzilla fight a bunch of monsters, but devoted viewers will recognize that they’re the exact same fights from Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla.  It’s not even good recycled footage; we get to re-watch the lame fights between Godzilla and the giant lobster Ebirah, Godzilla and the giant mantises (Kamacuras), the giant spider (Kumonga), and the unnamed giant condor. The new footage is largely comprised of A. Godzilla and Minilla dealing with a rather stupid-looking new monster called Gabara (just like the kid who bullies Ichiro!) and B. Minilla talking with Ichiro about how Godzilla expects him to fight his own battles (though he’s less aggravating in Japanese than he is in English). To make matters more depressing, All Monsters Attack was directed by series founder Ishirō Honda, who had wanted to get out of the kaiju genre and who tossed this one out after Destroy All Monsters renewed interest in the series. The series would see other low points, including that abortive American remake, but this is almost undoubtedly the nadir.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah: 56/B-

For the 11th Godzilla film, Toho handed the series to a director other than Ishirō Honda or Jun Fukuda for the first time since 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again. Inspired by a visit to a polluted beach, director Yoshimitsu Banno decided to give 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) an overt message, the series’ first since Mothra vs. Godzilla seven years earlier. Banno also decided to incorporate a few other, trippier elements, including animation and psychedelia. The results were uneven, to say the least, but far more interesting than the previous effort.

After being brought an odd tadpole-like creature by a local fisherman, Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi) and his young son Ken investigate, only to find a microscopic alien life form that feeds off of Earth’s pollution. The creature, Hedorah, attacks Yano and moves on to land, where it can switch between aquatic, terrestrial and airborne forms. Ken has a vision of Godzilla helping mankind fight the pollution monster, but when Hedorah’s toxic body both harms the giant lizard and doesn’t react to Godzilla’s usual attacks, Yano must find a new way to make the creature more susceptible to him.

The film establishes jarring disparate tones early on, beginning with an effective B-movie moment of creepy reptilian eyes moving through a polluted lake only to switch to an rock-and-roll tinged opening credits sequence that feels like a Japanese James Bond movie is starting up. It doesn't get any less schizophrenic: after a fairly effective scene where Hedorah attacks Yano and Ken discovers that using a knife on a sludge-monster won’t have much effect, the film shifts to a cheerful Hedorah cartoon, and later to a scene that sees Godzilla framed against the sun like a kung fu hero, and later alternating between Godzilla fighting Hedorah and a rock club with a guy freaking out and hallucinating a bunch of people wearing fish masks. It’s a nutty film, in short, but that’s part of what makes it so bizarrely enjoyable – you never quite know what Banno’s going to throw at the screen next (answer: a bunch of TV personalities appearing in split screen and yelling at Hedorah while a baby cries, the hippie characters going into a field to escape pollution and rock out, or Godzilla making himself fly by using his radioactive breath).

The oddness helps leaven the fact that Banno’s allegory is pretty blunt, bordering on didactic, and that Hedorah is a pretty goofy looking monster. The monster-movie moments aren’t without their charms: Godzilla actually seems badly hurt when he’s hit by toxic sludge, the characters try to find a scientific (well, pseudo-scientific) solution for the first time in a long time, and the effect of Hedorah’s toxic fumes or sludge on humans (cut away, back to disintegrated clothes and skeletons) is effective, if obvious. But it’s hard to choreograph fights between Godzilla and a giant sludge monster even if you’ve made it a bit of a shape-shifter that can walk or fly depending on the situation. And some of the dialogue setting up the us vs. pollution storyline is pretty goofy (“Godzilla would be angry if he saw this!”). But then, there’s a certain goofiness to most of the films in the Showa series (roughly the first 15 films), so it’s nice to get one that’s at least trying something new.

Godzilla vs. Gigan: 41/C

The same can’t be said for 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan, which was put into production after Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka saw Godzilla vs. Hedorah and hated it, saying that Banno had ruined Godzilla (which, if All Monsters Attack didn’t do it, nothing will). Tanaka fired Banno from the planned Godzilla vs. Hedorah 2, also making sure Banno would never direct for Toho again. He then brought back director Jun Fukuda and scrapped Hedorah 2 for a more traditional “Godzilla and Humanity vs. Aliens” storyline. Intended as a return to form, Godzilla vs. Gigan is more of a sign of a series that was running out of steam.

Manga artist Gengo (Hiroshi Ishikawa) is hired by a peace-themed park creepily titled World Children’s Land, which has a centerpiece called “Godzilla Tower” (shaped like the big green guy himself). Gengo starts to suspect something’s up when he notices the intense secrecy of the place, and when a pair of newfound friends steal a tape from the organization after explaining that they’ve kidnapped their brother. Gengo and company discover that World Children’s Land’s staff is made up of giant alien cockroaches who have taken on the form of dead humans in order to colonize earth. The stolen tape contains a signal incomprehensible to humans, but totally understandable to Godzilla and Anguirus, who realize that the aliens are bringing Ghidorah and the new monster Gigan to attack earth.

At this point, the series had more or less milked Ghidorah bone dry, so it’s probably a positive that the original plan to make him the central monster antagonist was rejiggered. To the film’s credit, Gigan is a fairly interesting monster far different from what the series had seen before. He seems to be part organic monster, part mechanical, with a lizard body but a beaklike mouth, scythe-shaped hands, a laser-red eye and a buzzsaw on his chest. It’s a cool design, and one that makes for some of the more memorably bloody moments in Godzilla history.

But Gigan’s design is just about the only point of interest in the movie. While the mystery of what exactly is going on is doled out fairly effectively, pretty much everything about the villains’ actions and ways of carrying themselves screams “I AM AN ALIEN! AN ALIEEEEN!,” and they don’t differentiate themselves from the previous extraterrestrial villains in any memorable way. The heroes are pretty dull, too, save for some odd opening moments in which Gengo pitches his ideas for manga monsters, Shukura and Mamagon (monsters made up of homework and strict mothers, respectively). Fukuda didn’t become any more skillful a director in the five years between his last Godzilla movie, either, with some of the compositions being particularly inept (he uses a fisheye lens for a driving scene, for some reason).

For all of the effort to create Gigan, it doesn’t pay off. Fukuda drags out the scenes of Ghidorah and Gigan destroying Tokyo, with no real obstacles, to the degree where it becomes repetitive, and he doesn’t stage the monster fights in a memorable way. What’s worse, he relies on stock footage from Destroy All Monsters for many of the Ghidorah moments (Anguirus chomping on Ghidorah’s neck and being lifted into the air), darkening the scene to make it look slightly different. And Godzilla himself has rarely looked worse, as the budget was low and the reused suit from 1967’s  Destroy All Monsters was clearly falling apart at this point. It’s a shoddy way to treat the main attraction. When the most memorable moment in your Godzilla movie is a bizarre scene in which Godzilla and Anguirus communicate via speech bubbles (gravelly spoken voices in the English version), you have not made a very good movie.

Godzilla vs. Megalon: 19/D+

Still, it’s better than the follow-up, 1973’s notoriously awful Godzilla vs. Megalon. The byproduct of the popular tokusatsu genre (heavy special effects films and TV shows often involving superheroes or mechas), the film wasn’t initially going to feature Godzilla at all, but rather serve as a vehicle for an Ultraman knockoff called Jet Jaguar. Toho wasn’t sure that Jet Jaguar could headline his own film, however, so they brought Godzilla and Gigan on for marketing value, shot the film in three weeks, and called it a day. It didn’t turn out well.

Nuclear testing has harmed the underwater nation of Seatopia, and they’ve decided to set their god, a giant beetle called Megalon, upon the human race. For whatever reason, they decide that they need Jet Jaguar, a robot created by an inventor living near the lake (!) where Seatopia lives under, to guide Megalon to destroy whatever they need. The inventor, his younger brother, and their friend are able to steal Jet Jaguar back and bring Godzilla to the fray while the Seatopians send a distress call to the aliens from the previous film to send Gigan.

It’s a half-assed story executed indifferently, with Fukuda’s terrible knack for pacing making the early going of the film particularly slow. The Seatopians are lame adversaries even for a late-period Showa film, and their undersea lair is cheap and poorly constructed. The lowlight (or laughable highlight, depending on your point of view) of the human storyline in the film is an incoherently shot fistfight between one of the heroes and a Seatopian that never seems to connect one shot to the other to form a clear picture.

Godzilla vs. Megalon can’t quite live down to All Monsters Attack’s cheapness or Ebirah, Horror of the Deep’s dullness, but it still has a number of series lows, including some of the worst effects of the series. Godzilla got a much-needed new suit following the wear and tear on the previous model, but he now seems to resemble a giant frog…whenever Fukuda and company aren’t cutting back to old stock footage, which again comprises much of the film’s effects, including most of the opening.

Megalon is a pretty lame new foe, too, a giant beetle with hands the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew compared to small Chrysler buildings and a tendency to bungle his way into destruction (he destroys a dam seemingly out of incompetence). Godzilla isn’t even the main attraction, most of the time, but rather second banana to Jet Jaguar (who gets a memorably silly song). The giant robot is more interesting than anything else that’s happening on screen (save for this delightfully goofy moment), but that’s not saying much. The film ends with a noncommittal shrug, as the heroes claim that the Seatopians should be left alone, as they don’t want to fight any more than they do (what). There were a couple more films left in the Showa series, but at this point it was clear the King of the Monsters needed to take some time off.

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